Madison, Wisconsin's, secret is out: Consistently ranked by national magazines as one of the best places to live in the U.S. And Madison's population is growing more than twice as fast as the rest of the state. Some of the new folks are drawn to the city's beautiful natural setting—an isthmus separating two glacial lakes that are surrounded by rolling hills. It's a great area for bicycling, cross-country skiing and other outdoor activities.

Others go to Madison to attend the University of Wisconsin and never leave, taking jobs as researchers or even taxi drivers just to remain in town (don't be surprised if your cabdriver has a degree). They stay because they enjoy the city's progressive attitude, fueled by the university but endorsed by many of the politicos who work just east of campus in the state Capitol. Madison is, after all, the city that produced reformist governor "Fighting" Bob LaFollette and calls itself "Madtown," a nod to its lively character. No wonder longtime residents refer to their city—with obvious affection—as "78 square miles surrounded by reality."

Even residents who don't share Madison's left-of-center politics have plenty of reasons to like their locale: Madison boasts a low unemployment rate, growing high-tech and biotech sectors, good schools and services, lots of cultural activities and housing that rapidly appreciates.

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